Matthew 5:13 – 16
Salt and light. Jesus calls his disciples to be salt and light. Since we are his disciples, we are called to be salt and light as well. What does it mean to be salt and light? In our modern world salt and light have very different meanings than they did in Jesus’ day. Salt gets a lot of negative press these days, and we see it as an indulgence that kills lots of people every year. Is that what Jesus was trying to get his disciples to be? Let’s see if we can get some perspective on salt and light and then apply them to our day.
We don’t need to go back to Jesus’ time to understand salt and light as he used them in this case. One of my favorite authors is Joseph C. Lincoln. He wrote tales of Cape Cod in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They usually involve retired sea captains and the pickles into which they get themselves. One story, probably my favorite, is Cap’n Eri. Cap’n Eri is a retired sea captain who is bunking with two other retired captains. One of them has a city-slicker grandson from New York City who needs to learn the realities of life. He comes to live with the captains and Cap’n Eri takes him out on his little fishing dory. The young man is astounded to see how hard it is to make a living as a fisherman, especially as he prefers the city life, where you can go to the store to get anything that you need. But those things displayed so finely in the stores have to come from somewhere, and in 1890, when you got fish in New York or Chicago, it was not usually fresh, unless you went fishing or to the docks yourself; it was usually salted in a barrel. Cap’n Eri would catch the cod, and then he would clean them and pack them into a barrel liberally filled with salt. The fish would then be preserved for months if necessary for the trip to its final destination. The salt was the reason the New Yorkers and Chicagoans could enjoy fish whenever they wanted it.
Human beings cannot live without salt. Too much salt will kill you, but no salt at all is just as problematic. In Jesus’ day, if you wanted food to last beyond the day after tomorrow, you had to use a good deal of salt to preserve it. No salt, not food after the slaughter or catch. No salt was equal to starvation. Beyond that, no salt was equal to a tasteless existence. Some of you may be subject to a low salt diet. Low salt diet is another way to say “tasteless.” Salt gives food its savor and much of its taste. Flavors that are hidden in a food can be drawn out with the right amount of salt. You can even put salt in ice cream and improve the flavor.
When you can flick a switch and immediately get light, it is easy to simply take light for granted. Our streets are lighted automatically at dusk, and the parking lots at the malls are well-lit, too. We have so much light that we talk about there being light pollution which keeps us from seeing the stars. But there are times when light is critical.
We all went through Hurricane Ike and remember what it was like to have no light in the house. One of the most remarkable things I recall seeing was a pair of space photographs of the New Orleans area before and after Hurricane Katrina. Before there was abundant light, and afterward there was bleak darkness. In Jesus’ day, travelers looked for the light of the town or inn to guide through the last steps of a night journey. Camels do not come with headlights, so that light in the distance meant safety and was a guide for the way to go.
Lighthouses play a large role in the Cape Cod tales of Joseph C. Lincoln: faithful but lonely folks living on a rocky coast, sending out a light to warn sailors to stay away from the dangerous rocks. There is a classic joke about an encounter at sea, with an aircraft carrier and all of its escort vessels steaming along at a brisk speed. Far in the distance they spot the lights of another vessel headed right for them, and they make radio contact to get the other ship to change course before a collision takes place. The other ship refused to change course and instead demanded that the aircraft carrier change course instead. This ticked off the captain so he replied that this was the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and if the other ship did not immediately alter course, he would take measures to assure the safety of his vessel. The other ship responded that they were a lighthouse and the captain could do what he thought best about it.
We are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Our metaphorical calling is shown to us in how salt and light act in the world. That means that we are called to be the preservers and flavor enhancers of human society; to be the beam that warns against dangers and shows the way to safety. Let’s think about preservation first.
The church preserves society, not by standing with “the way we always did things,” but rather by standing against the things that rot society. The problem is to determine which things rot society. Find that out, and you can easily see what the church should be standing against. So, which things rot society? 100 years ago, it would have been easy to find many Christians who would have said that alcohol was rotting society. Or that the new dances were rotting society. To be sure, drunks are never a welcome sight. Beating wives and children, missing work and losing jobs, killing folks on the highway are all very persuasive arguments. However, it is drunkenness and not drinking that causes the problems.
I would agree that drunkenness is a rot in society. However, we need to be very careful that we do not trust our own judgments for those things that cause rot. One reason for that is that the rot will come from different root causes than we suspect. When we see drunkenness causing problems, we want to ban drinking, but then we come up against a pretty hard barrier: the Word of God. The scriptures take a very dim view of drunkenness but they approve heartily of drinking. The cause of drunkenness is not the drink but the drinker. Taking the drink away will end the drunkenness, but the sin behind it will come out eventually. During Prohibition bad things still went on, caused by wicked men who refused to take their care and protection responsibilities seriously.
So, what is the secret to knowing which the rotten things in society are? I think that this is the reason that Jesus moved from salt and light to the law. He was not changing the subject, but rather he was indicating the way to be salt and light: follow the law of God.
In Matthew 5:17 – 20 he tells how the law fits into things. He came to fulfill and not to set aside. The law consisted in three primary aspects: moral, ceremonial, and legal. It is not difficult to see how he came as the fulfillment of the ceremonial law. All of those commandments about sacrifices for sin and uncleanness were fulfilled and completed in his sacrifice. This is exactly what the writer said in Hebrews 9:6 – 10.
In addition to those laws were the ones that were necessary for the running of the country of Israel. When God instituted the New Covenant with all of mankind, the law concerning the nation continued on until the nation was no more and now has no direct bearing on us. There is an indirect bearing as all of the law is built on principles that God created and to this day wants to have us practice.
This is what our Old Testament passage is all about.